I had hoped to be able to go into more depth with this post, but events have overtaken me, so I have to write it pretty much off the top of my head and get it up as soon as possible.
It’s been, oh, 25 or 30 years now since a teenage cousin of mine heard me mention Cinerama and asked me what it was. I was astonished, back then, that there was someone who didn’t know. Well, that cousin is now 46, with a Ph.D. and a position in the Microbiology Dept. at the Univeristy of California Irvine. How many have been born since then who also don’t know what Cinerama was?
In a nutshell, and for the benefit of those who don’t know, Cinerama was the first successful widescreen process. Hollywood had flirted with widescreen photography in the late 1920s and early ’30s, but it proved to be an innovation too far for an industry already grappling with the transition to sound and the Great Depression, and the experiment quickly petered out in failure.
Not all the screenings will be in “classic” Cinerama. Two of the early travelogues (This Is Cinerama and Search for Paradise [’57]) and the two “story” productions (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, both ’62) will be screened in their original three-strip (i.e., three-projector) form, albeit with digital sound reproduction to replace the original console that played Reeves’s seven-track magnetic sound strip. Mad, Mad World will be shown in Ultra Panavision, the 70mm process that supplanted (but could never replace) Cinerama after How the West Was Won. The others will all be digital presentations, most of them remastered from original negatives.
I’m not sure what to expect from those digital prints, but I’m willing take a chance. In any case, the trip down to Hollywood will be worth it to see This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won again, and Search for Paradise and Brothers Grimm for the first time. If you can possibly make it to Hollywood, you’ll find it worth the trip too. Click here for details and to purchase tickets (at this writing, only the first screening of each title is available for purchase; later screenings will no doubt be along in time).
I’ll have more to say about Cinerama, but I want to get this post up as quickly as possible. Tickets have only been on sale since Thursday, and they’re already going fast.
It was Merian C. Cooper who came up with the perfect way to introduce Cinerama to audiences. To do it he took a cue from his alter ego Carl Denham in his most famous picture, King Kong, and the way Denham introduced the giant ape to New York.
Spectators at that first showing on September 30, 1952 walked into an auditorium dominated by a huge curved wall of wine-red curtains. As the house lights dimmed, they heard the Morse Code dit-dit-ditting that was familiar to them all as the intro to Lowell Thomas’s daily radio program. The red curtains parted slightly, and there was the image of Thomas himself, in black and white, on a standard-size movie screen, welcoming them.
Thomas promised the audience “the latest development in the magic of light and sound.” Then for a full 13 minutes Thomas reviewed the history of moving pictures, from The Great Train Robbery down to 1952. Finally: “The pictures you are now going to see have no plot. They have no stars. This is not a stageplay, nor is it a feature picture, nor a travelogue, nor a symphonic concert, nor an opera. But it is a combination of all of them. In fact, it is the first public demonstration of an entirely new medium. Ladies and gentlemen…This…is Cinerama!”
The curtains rolled open — rolled and rolled and rolled — to the sound of a thundering fanfare that might have accompanied a triumphant army’s march into Ancient Rome, augmented by gasps and squeals from the flabbergasted audience. The screen dissolved from that ordinary little black-and-white image of Lowell Thomas…
…and that Broadway Theatre audience was taken on an uninterrupted ride in the front seat of the Atom Smasher Rollercoaster at Rockaway, Long Island’s Playland amusement park. “No human being had ever sat in a theater and had this kind of visceral experience,” recalled production manager Jim Morrison. “It hit you right in the gut, right smack in the belly.” And historian Kevin Brownlow: “There was nothing to beat that moment… Suddenly the cinema seemed to open out…the back wall seemed to disappear and we were plunging on a rollercoaster. It was the most staggering moment one could possibly have.”
If there were such thing as a Dictionary of Stereotypical Characters, the entry for “eccentric inventor” would have a picture of Fred Waller. In the 1920s and ’30s, Waller’s day job was at Paramount’s East Coast studios in Astoria, Long Island, where he worked as a photographic jack of all trades. In one capacity or another he worked on, among other pictures, Male and Female (1921) for Cecil B. DeMille, and That Royle Girl (’25) and The Sorrows of Satan (’26) for D. W. Griffith. In the ’30s he produced and directed a series of innovative and visually striking jazz-flavored shorts featuring the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.
Meanwhile, on his own time, he tinkered and puttered. He invented a container for keeping food dry in humid climates, a remote-recording wind direction-and-velocity indicator, an adjustable sail batten for sailboats, and a still camera that could take a 360-degree panoramic picture. (Also, as I mentioned before, water skis, which he marketed as Dolphin Awkwa-Skees.) Through it all he continued his obsession with finding a way to photograph the full range of human vision, pursuing his idea that peripheral vision was as important to depth perception as binocular vision. He used to walk around his home wearing a baseball cap with toothpicks stuck in the brim, testing how far back he could place the toothpicks and still see them, mulling over the kind of screen he would need for what he had in mind.
In 1938, architect Ralph Walker came to Waller with a unique photography challenge connected with an exhibit Walker was designing for the petroleum industry for the upcoming New York World’s Fair. Walker envisioned a spherical room with a battery of projectors casting a constant stream of moving pictures, an idea that dovetailed neatly with what Waller had been turning over in his own head. With Walker’s firm, Waller formed the Vitarama Corporation, and by early 1939 he had a working model of eleven 16mm projectors showing a patchwork image on a concave quarter-dome screen suspended over the heads of the audience.
In the end Walker’s clients, the representatives of the petroleum industry, decided not to use Waller’s Vitarama, opting for something simpler, more conventional — and, not incidentally, cheaper to produce and exhibit. Waller adapted the Vitarama idea for another exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, a huge mosaic slide show of still images for the Eastman Kodak exhibit. More important, the idea of the concave screen had solved Waller’s dilemma over how to project his multi-part images to envelop an audience.
Also coming aboard at this time was Hazard E. “Buz” Reeves, one of the most brilliant and inventive men in the history of sound recording. Reeves had seen Vitarama as early as 1940, and was excited at the prospect of developing a sound system to go with it. Reeves and his company, Reeves Soundcraft, pioneered the use of magnetic recording for movies, a method more versatile than the standard practice of optical sound recording.
As Waller simplified the Vitarama/Cinerama process from five projectors to three, and from the quarter-dome screen to a wide curved rectangle (like the inner surface of a slightly flattened cylinder), Reeves developed a sound system to match: five huge loudspeakers behind the screen, each with its own discrete track, and a sixth track dispersed as needed to speakers placed at the rear and sides of the auditorium. (A seventh track, a composite of the other six, was intended only as an emergency backup and seldom used in practice.) Naturally, seven separate magnetic soundtracks required far more space than a standard optical soundtrack, so the sound was recorded on its own strip of 35mm film and run on a separate “projector” synchronized with the three image projectors just as they were synchronized with one another.
(PLEASE NOTE: For much of the information in this and following posts, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Thomas E. Erffmeyer, who wrote a history of Cinerama as his Ph.D. dissertation in Radio, Television and Film at Northwestern University [June 1985].)
When Rockefeller and Luce bailed on Cinerama in July 1950, those other East Coast investors decided to take a pass as well, and Cinerama Corp. was dissolved in August. After buying out Rockefeller and Luce for a song, Hazard Reeves doubled down — he quite a bit more than doubled, in fact. In September he formed a new corporation, Cinerama Inc., in which Reeves Soundcraft was the principal stockholder, and set about tackling the challenges of moving Cinerama forward. The demonstration screenings at the converted tennis court continued. There were nibbles from independent producer Hal B. Wallis and a consortium of theater owners, but nothing came of them.
In the autumn of 1950 Cinerama got two big bites. Buz Reeves invited Lowell Thomas out to Oyster Bay to have a look; Thomas invited his business manager Frank M. Smith to come along, and Smith in turn invited another of his clients, theatrical producer Michael Todd.
It’s hard to explain Lowell Thomas to people who don’t remember him; even the Library of Congress was at a loss when it came time to classify his memoirs (they finally filed them under “biographies of subjects who don’t fit into any other category”). Born in 1892, he graduated from high school in 1910 and by 1912 (if we can believe Wikipedia) he had three bachelor’s degrees, plus an M.A. from the University of Denver. He worked as a reporter for the Chicago Journal, where he specialized in travel articles, which he expanded into lectures accompanied by motion pictures, thus pioneering (indeed, virtually inventing) the concept of travelogue movies. As a correspondent in the World War I Middle East, he became world-famous for his coverage of the campaigns of T.E. Lawrence; subsequent lectures in New York and London spread the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. In 1930 he began 46 years of daily radio news broadcasts, first on NBC and later CBS, that made his resonant baritone one of the most familiar voices in America. His famous greeting (“Good evening, everybody.”) and sign-off (“So long until tomorrow.”) became the titles of his two volumes of autobiography. He wrote over 50 books in all, most of them chronicling his incessant world travels (the Society of American Travel Writers has an award named after him). When he became the voice of Fox Movietone News in the 1930s, it was he who lent stature to the newsreel, not the other way around. By 1950 he was one of the most respected men in American media.
Mike Todd (born Avrom Goldbogen in 1909) was also one of a kind, but a lot easier to classify. He was a flamboyant, dynamic showman cast in the mold of P.T. Barnum, mixing the high-rolling pretensions of a Florenz Ziegfeld or Billy Rose with the bumptious chutzpah of a Texas oil wildcatter. “A producer is a guy who puts on shows he likes,” he once said. “A showman is a guy who puts on shows he thinks the public likes. I like to think I’m a showman.” Among the shows with which he sought to please the public were Cole Porter’s Something for the Boys with Ethel Merman; The Hot Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan in swingtime with an African American cast headed by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, which opened on Broadway then transferred to the 1939 New York World’s Fair; The G.I. Hamlet with Maurice Evans; and Michael Todd’s Peep Show, a burlesque revue starring stripper Lilly “The Cat Girl” Christine — which, to Todd’s delight, was threatened with closure by censors in Philadelphia. Todd was adept at sweet-talking talent into his shows and even more adept at getting other men to foot the bill. He swung from fortune to bankruptcy and back with the regularity of a pendulum in a planetarium. As his son Mike Jr. remembered, when Todd saw Waller’s demonstration of Cinerama, he turned to an underling and gushed, “This is the greatest thing since penicillin! We’ve gotta get control of it!” (In fact, he never did — but I’ll get to that in its time.)
Lowell Thomas and Michael Todd had little in common beyond an instinct for showmanship and a flair for self-promotion, but they shared an avid enthusiasm for what they saw out in Oyster Bay. They also shared a business manager, Frank Smith, and that was enough for Smith to set up Thomas-Todd Productions Inc., licensed by Cinerama Inc. to produce and exhibit Cinerama movies. Thomas and Smith put up most of the money; Todd got stock in the corporation but, not surprisingly, didn’t put up any of his own money — his main contribution was to be his talent as a showman. In a parallel development, Cinerama Inc. had its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange in January 1951.
In any case, there was an ulterior motive in enlisting Cooper: Mike Todd’s presence was becoming increasingly problematic. His domineering bull-in-a-china-shop style was beginning to grate on people. More important, perhaps, Todd’s presence spooked Wall Street. Thomas-Todd Productions wasn’t publicly held, but Cinerama Inc. was, and Todd’s well-known profligacy with other people’s money made investors wary. Then again, there were some ominous attempts by creditors from Todd’s numerous bankruptcies to recoup their losses from one of the Cinerama companies. There seemed nothing for it but to squeeze Todd out. By March 1952 it was announced he’d be taking a “leave” from Thomas-Todd Productions and Cinerama, and in August Thomas-Todd was dissolved, replaced by Cinerama Productions Corporation, with Lowell Thomas as chairman of the board.
Mike Todd’s 14 months on the scene left their mark, however, and not just for his storming the gates at La Scala; nearly the entire first half of what would become This Is Cinerama was supervised either by him or by Mike Jr. In the few years left to him (he died in a plane crash in March 1958), Todd would have his own story about his departure from Cinerama, a sort of you-can’t-quit-me-I’m-fired version. He said his associates at Thomas-Todd and Cinerama Inc. were too conservative and wary of taking chances: “We can’t stay on that roller-coaster and in the canals of Venice forever. Somebody has to say ‘I love you’ some day.” He also thought he could do better than Cinerama’s three-frame picture, and he wasted little time enlisting the services of the American Optical Company to develop the 70mm Todd-AO process, the only one of Cinerama’s many progeny that ever really challenged its supremacy.
But that was still in the unseeable future. Now, with Todd safely out of the way, Thomas and Cooper secured an additional $600,000 to complete their picture. To counteract the largely static footage in all those European sections, Cooper had the Cinerama camera in fairly constant motion for the two long sequences that would make up the second half. First was a colorful aquacade at Florida’s Cypress Gardens (coincidentally, much of the show consisted of strapping young men and nubile bathing beauties cavorting on Fred Waller’s other invention, water skis).
For the grand finale, Cooper hired stunt flyer Paul Mantz to pilot a modified B-25 bomber across the country for a bird’s-eye view of the natural and man-made wonders of America, set to the tune of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “America the Beautiful”. Cooper also took on the task of determining what would go into the feature, and in what order — where others wanted to save the rollercoaster for the climax of the picture, Cooper insisted on hitting ’em hard right out of the gate. Preparations for the premiere proceeded feverishly right up to the last minute — Mantz’s “amber waves of grain” shots weren’t ready for the projectors until just twelve hours before showtime.
And, as we’ve seen, the result was a triumph beyond the dreams of everyone involved. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, in an unprecedented front-page review, called it “an historic event in the history of motion pictures.” Cinerama, as it was called before This Is was added to the title, became overnight the hottest ticket on Broadway. Everyone in the picture business recognized it at once as a game-changer — much more so, in fact, than they had The Jazz Singer in 1927.
The question on everyone’s lips in the weeks that followed was the same one that Fred Waller, Lowell Thomas, Buz Reeves and their investors were asking themselves: What’s next for Cinerama?
Lowell Thomas decided right off the bat — and Merian Cooper, when he came aboard, concurred — that the star of the first Cinerama picture would be Cinerama itself. “If Charlie Chaplin had offered to do Hamlet for us,” Thomas remembered, “I’d have turned him down. I didn’t want people judging Chaplin or rediscovering Shakespeare…The advent of something as new and important as Cinerama was a major event in the history of entertainment and I was determined to let nothing upstage it.” In other words, This Is Cinerama wasn’t a movie, it was a demonstration, just like Waller and Reeves’s screenings at their tennis court command post in Oyster Bay. The difference this time was that the presentation was more organized and formal, with tuxedo-clad personnel escorting the audience to their seats — and it was in Technicolor. (Mostly, anyhow; when opening night loomed and the feature was still a little short, Thomas and Cooper decided to splice in Waller’s black-and-white clip of the Long Island Choral Society singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus — it made a good demo of the sound system, with an invisible choir marching down the aisles of the theater before coming into view on the screen.) So in a sense, Cinerama was exactly where it was before the opening — only now the whole world was watching.
The first dramatic Cinerama picture, Cooper said, would begin shooting within two months with himself producing and directing, followed within a year by a second feature, probably directed by Cooper’s Argosy Films partner John Ford. (Ford didn’t work in Cinerama until almost ten years later, and he wasn’t happy with it or well suited, contributing the shortest and weakest episode of How the West Was Won.)
An array of productions were considered, and some even announced. Paint Your Wagon. Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A remake of King Kong. Lawrence of Arabia (this would have been a much different picture from the one we eventually got; Lowell Thomas didn’t much care for David Lean’s 1962 take on his old friend). Paul Mantz climbed back in the cockpit of his converted B-25 and shot another 200,000 feet, at a cost of $500,000, without anybody knowing when or how it would be used.
Some of Mantz’s footage eventually wound up in Seven Wonders of the World (’56). But as for these other ambitious plans, none of them ever came to pass.
Part of the reason was L.B. Mayer himself. Biographer Scott Eyman speculates that Mayer’s enthusiasm for Cinerama was never that great in the first place; he may have been clinging to the forlorn hope that his exile from MGM was only temporary, intending Cinerama as a base from which to stage a return to Culver City. Whatever his intentions, the battle with Dore Schary had left him, in Lowell Thomas’s words, “aging, tired [and] unable to make up his mind about anything.” (Eyman memorably quotes writer Gavin Lambert, who covered Mayer at the time, in almost the same words: “He was an aging, tired man in a dark suit, who looked like a businessman but was actually an exiled emperor.”) Mayer eventually left Cinerama, though sources vary on exactly when. Eyman dates Mayer’s departure to November 1954; Thomas Erffmeyer’s history implies (and an article in the Winter 1992 issue of The Perfect Vision says outright) that it may have been as early as May ’53. In any event, Cinerama Productions Corp. produced nothing under Mayer’s chairmanship, and frittered away much of its early momentum.
They did. Digging back, they came up with a process a French professor named Henri Chretien had tried unsuccessfully to peddle in Hollywood back in the ’20s. He called it Anamorphoscope, and it involved using what Chretien called a “hypergonar” lens on the camera to squash a wide angle of view onto standard 35mm film, then a compensating lens on the projector to stretch it back out again. The good news was that Chretien’s patent had expired in 1951 and Anamorphoscope was now in the public domain; the bad news was that Chretien had the only set of lenses. Long story short, Skouras tracked Prof. Chretien to his home in Nice, reached an agreement for the use of his lenses (which were later refined and reproduced by Bausch & Lomb back in the States), and in February 1953 Skouras announced the process under a new name, CinemaScope (whoever came up with that replacement for “Anamorphoscope” surely earned his pay for the week!).
Early ads for CinemaScope, like the one I’ve reproduced here, emphasized a resemblance to both Cinerama and 3-D (“It’s the miracle you see without glasses!”) that didn’t really exist. While CinemaScope did originally call for a curved screen, most theaters didn’t bother with that. Even in The Robe‘s first-run engagements, the curve was much shallower than in this ad, and nowhere near as deep as Cinerama’s. (A good thing, too: you have to feel sorry for that poor sucker on the left end of the seventh row — what kind of view could he have had?) Anybody who compared Cinerama and CinemaScope side-by-side (so to speak) could see there was no real comparison. But in truth, most moviegoers couldn’t do that. Among Hollywood professionals, CinemaScope didn’t have to be as good as Cinerama, as long as they could sell it that way to the millions who hadn’t yet seen the real McCoy. Besides, it was still a huge change from movies-as-usual, and something folks couldn’t get on those newfangled television sets.
And it was relatively cheap. While the Cinerama people did their best to low-ball the estimated cost of converting a theater, the truth was it could run as high as $200,000. Moreover, hundreds of seats could be lost either to make room for the three projection booths or because of unacceptable viewing angles, thus limiting potential revenue. Conversely, CinemaScope (Fox promised) could be installed with no loss of seats, and for the mere cost of a set of lenses, a new screen, and a three-channel magnetic sound system — a sizeable investment, yes, but nothing like the fortune needed for Cinerama. (This is a good time to remind you that we’re talking about Eisenhower dollars here; to get a sense of 2012 equivalents, you should add at least a zero, and maybe multiply by two or three.)
Fox mounted an aggressive and well-organized campaign to promote CinemaScope (Skouras was battling a hostile takeover, so ‘Scope had to succeed), and in the end it would effectively sink Cinerama Productions Corp.’s hopes of partnering with one of the major studios. Even as early as March and April ’53, when Fox began holding nationwide demonstrations of CinemaScope for industry and press, Cinerama was feeling the pinch. Not only were leads on new investment drying up, but some contractually committed investors were backing out, citing a “changed circumstances” escape clause in their contracts. Cinerama still had only three venues in the world (a fourth, the Palace in Chicago, wouldn’t open until July due to a protracted haggle with the local projectionists’ union). Cinerama Productions Corp. had to find funding to supplement their high-overhead box-office take if they were going to open more theaters and maintain a foothold in the market they had created, to say nothing of producing follow-up features to This Is Cinerama.
They considered their options. A public stock offering was one, but sales of Cinerama Inc. stock had already been less than expected. Another possibility was to seek financial participation from a theater circuit rather than a studio, and they decided on that. A logical choice for such an arrangement was the Stanley Warner Corporation, since Cinerama had already been dealing with them: the newly Cineramified Warner Theatre in Los Angeles was theirs, and This Is Cinerama was slated to move from the Broadway Theatre to New York’s Warner in June 1953 (the Shubert brothers wanted their house back).
As the corporate heir (as it were) to Warner Bros. Theatres, Stanley Warner became a party to the federal suit’s consent decree, and needed approval from federal court (and by extension the U.S. Dept. of Justice) for any venture into movie production, distribution or exhibition. That included any agreement with Cinerama Productions Corp., so it added yet another layer of negotiation. A tentative agreement for Stanley Warner to take over Cinerama theater operations was announced in May 1953, but there were a multitude of details to work out. Cinerama Productions’ licensing agreement with Cinerama Inc. ran only through 1956, so Stanley Warner wanted a two-year extension of that to help recoup their investment. They also wanted control of production and distribution as well as exhibition, to ensure a steady flow of pictures for the theaters. Meanwhile, Cinerama Productions was behind in payments to Cinerama Inc. for equipment, so Cinerama Inc. wanted at least something towards that before any talk about extending the license. And the Dept. of Justice had their own demands before they’d recommend court approval.
It took three months of intense dickering to sort this all out, with the clock ticking — if court approval wasn’t received by August 15, the whole deal was off. They finally made it with four days to spare, and the deal was this: For a little over $2.5 million, Stanley Warner essentially bought control of Cinerama Productions Corp. through 1958, adding yet another layer to the corporate tangle with its wholly-owned subsidiary Stanley Warner Cinerama. They would produce at least five Cinerama pictures but (the feds insisted) no more than 15. For each feature they could also produce a conventional 35mm version, but (again, per the feds) could not exhibit the 35mm versions in any of the Cinerama theaters. And — yet again, here was the hand of the U.S. Dept. of Justice — Stanley Warner could open no more than 24 Cinerama theaters in the United States. (So much for Dudley Roberts’s dream of a hundred theaters getting six to eight pictures a year.)
In his 1977 memoir So Long Until Tomorrow, the 85-year-old Lowell Thomas — with nearly a quarter-century of frustrated hindsight — remembered the Stanley Warner deal thus:
“Our original group of founders had dwindled — Fred Waller, the gentle, bespectacled genius who started it all, had died before he even knew of his triumph; Mike Todd was busily hustling and working with American Optical on the process to be called Todd A-O … Arrayed against [Frank Smith], Merian Cooper and me were men of wealth who had gone into Cinerama solely for the investment possibilities, and at this critical juncture, either unwilling to go looking for the additional cash or simply ready to take their already large profits, they opted to sell out.
“The buyer was the Stanley-Warner company, and from a purely practical viewpoint, maybe the decision was not all wrong. In making it we all made a lot of money. But the bells began tolling for Cinerama then and there. Stanley-Warner was a brassiere manufacturing corporation, plus owners of a major theater chain. But they were not film producers … They didn’t really know what Cinerama was all about.”
Thomas’s memory wasn’t flawless. “Stanley Warner” wasn’t hyphenated, and “Todd-AO” was. Fred Waller lived long enough to know his triumph and collect an Oscar for it; he died in May 1954, nine months after the Stanley Warner deal was approved by the court. And Stanley Warner wasn’t “a brassiere manufacturing company”. Not yet. They didn’t purchase the International Latex Corporation (maker of, among other things, the Playtex Living Bra) until April 1954, a year after buying their six-year control of Cinerama Productions Corp. (This expansion from theater operation to ladies’ undies and baby pants was an early example of the kind of diversification that ultimately led to the entertainment conglomerates of today.)
But Thomas’s basic point was well taken. The folks at Stanley Warner were not film producers. And despite S.H. Fabian’s advocacy of alternate entertainment technologies — he was an early proponent of drive-in theaters, 3-D, and closed-circuit theatrical television — he really didn’t know what Cinerama was all about. Even if nobody heard it at the time, the bells were definitely tolling.
Thomas can be forgiven a certain amount of bitterness. By May 1954, Stanley Warner had managed to open only seven new Cinerama theaters and had yet to complete a follow-up feature to This Is Cinerama; yet they had managed to scrape up $15 million to buy International Latex. Moreover, in the next four years SW would lavish far more care and resources on International Latex, where profit margins were high and they were not under the thumb of the U.S. Justice Dept. Small wonder that, decades later, Thomas remembered SW being already in the brassiere business when Cinerama came along.
Stanley Warner was contractually obligated to produce a picture within the first year, and their original plan was the same as Cinerama’s before them: to involve one of the major studios in making pictures in the process. In early August, even before the court approved the buyout, talks were held with Columbia, Paramount and Warner Bros. All came to nothing, including a proposed picture about the Lewis and Clark expedition to star Gregory Peck and Clark Gable as the great explorers (excellent casting, that).
With the success of The Robe, studios began stampeding to CinemaScope in preference to the more expensive Cinerama, and any chance of a deal in that direction evaporated. SW negotiated with Merian Cooper, who was thinking of molding Paul Mantz’s 200,000 feet of aerial footage into a picture to be called Seven Wonders of the World, but talks broke down when they couldn’t agree on a completion schedule.
The general public, however, saw none of this. All they knew, if they hadn’t seen This Is Cinerama yet, was that Cinerama was the miraculous more-than-a-movie that everybody was talking about. If they had seen it, all they knew was that the theater was jam-packed, at top-dollar prices; if they saw it more than once, showing that their own enthusiasm hadn’t dimmed, they saw that nobody else’s had either. And when Cinerama Holiday finally opened in February 1955, the box office didn’t fall off a dime. Movie houses in towns or neighborhoods may bring in picture after picture in CinemaScope, but to the public Cinerama was the gold standard. More than a movie, indeed — it was a tourist attraction.
Neither Robin International nor the Greek-born Reisini had any experience in the movie business. Robin International was reportedly an import/export company, although exactly what it imported and exported wasn’t clear. Nothing shady, mind you, it’s just that Reisini seems to have had his fingers in a bewildering number of pies — none of them having anything to do with the movie industry.
But there was another factor. According to his son Andrew (interviewed for David Strohmaier’s 2002 documentary Cinerama Adventure), Nicolas Reisini as a young man had seen the Paris premiere of Abel Gance’s Napoleon in 1927 and been spellbound — especially by Gance’s three-screen “Polyvision” triptych that climaxed the picture. When Reisini saw This Is Cinerama in New York in late ’52 or early ’53, it revived that youthful excitement and seemed to be the fulfillment of Gance’s earlier vision. Son Andrew says Reisini decided on the spot that he wanted to get in on Cinerama one way or another, and when Stanley Warner went looking for someone to buy foreign rights, Reisini was ready.
SW never operated more than 22 Cinerama theaters at one time, and they never produced enough pictures to keep even those busy (and nowhere near the court-imposed limit of 15 pictures). When they did produce a new Cinerama picture, all they could think to do was produce yet another travelogue, the only real change being where the picture traveled to. Even then, as we have seen, SW would delay release until they had wrung the current release dry; they insisted every picture had to premiere in New York, yet they wouldn’t open a second New York theater. Nor would they even consider beginning a new picture while they had one waiting in the wings; the idea of creating a backlog of pictures ready to go appears never to have been considered.
In 1957, when the foreign-rights agreement with Robin International expired, Stanley Warner ventured into that area themselves. They learned a lesson, though, from Nicolas Reisini’s practice of sub-licensing Cinerama to local exhibitors, who would pay to convert a theater, then lease rather than purchase the equipment from Cinerama Inc. Essentially, what Reisini had done, and what SW did now, was to sell Cinerama “franchises”. It was a policy that might have served Cinerama well from the outset — and indeed Reisini would employ it with some success after he took the driver’s seat — but it seems not to have occurred to anyone before Reisini came along.
Part of the problem all along was Cinerama’s Byzantine corporate structure, which hampered any attempt to strategize Cinerama for the long run. Instead of one central corporation, Cinerama was first three, then four, all severely undercapitalized and with complicated financial relations. A serious simplification of the arrangement was called for, but Stanley Warner never made any effort in that direction.
Nicolas Reisini was, if nothing else, an energetic and ambitious entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer, and he hit the ground running. Even before assuming the presidency of Cinerama in May 1960, he accomplished something nobody before him had been able to do: He established a co-production agreement with a major studio. The studio was MGM (then flush with the critical and box-office success of Ben-Hur), and the agreement was announced on December 11, 1959: They would produce at least two and as many as six features; MGM production chief Sol C. Siegel would supervise them, with Cinerama having script, director and cast approval; Cinerama would distribute and exhibit the pictures in their theaters, and MGM would handle distribution of 35mm general release versions after the Cinerama roadshow engagements.
Not all of HTWWW had been shot with the three-lens Cinerama camera. There were some stock shots inserted from MGM’s Raintree County (1957), which had been shot in MGM Camera 65 (actually a variety of Panavision), and John Wayne’s The Alamo (’60), which had been in Todd-AO. In both cases, the original one-frame negative had been split optically into thirds to run through the three Cinerama projectors. Also, a number of risky shots — Karl Malden and Carroll Baker battling the river rapids on their raft, for example, or Eli Wallach clinging to the undercarriage of a runaway train — were done using back-projections, which couldn’t be shot in true Cinerama; instead, they were shot in UltraPanavision (which combined 70mm film stock with a slight anamorphic squeeze) and, again, split optically. This was the penultimate nail in the coffin of three-frame Cinerama. Look [the word went], we used Panavision in all these shots in HTWWW and nobody noticed the difference. (That wasn’t true, by the way; there was a sharp degradation of photographic quality. It’s just that the scenes were so exciting nobody minded.) Still, with cash-flow problems hammering at the door, Reisini saw no choice but to trim overhead by abandoning three-screen exhibition. He ordered a stop to all research into perfecting Cinerama (I’ll get into that next time) and announced that henceforth all “Cinerama” pictures would be shot in UltraPanavision.
It wasn’t enough to save his job. Enter William Forman of Pacific Theatres. Several of his theaters had installed Cinerama equipment, and Forman jumped in with both feet in February ’63: for $15 million he bought up the note Prudential Insurance Co. held from their 1959 loan of $12 million, and with it he acquired a series of stock options, all of which he excercised, to the point where he replaced Nicolas Reisini as president and CEO in December ’63. Reisini remained as chairman of the board for the time being, but in September ’64, with Cinerama Inc. teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, he resigned even from that, effective immediately.
At This Is Cinerama‘s premiere on September 30, 1952, historian Greg Kimble tells us, Lowell Thomas and Merian Cooper were as nervous as expectant fathers. But not Fred Waller; he sat quietly confident, and as the cheers and bravos echoed at the end, he allowed himself only the slightest of smiles. “I knew 16 years ago,” he said, “it would be like this.”
Even so, Waller never considered that night’s showing to be Cinerama in its final form; this was, in a sense, only the “third generation” version. Just as he had refined Vitarama’s 11 cameras and projectors down to five, and those five down to Cinerama’s three, he fully expected that the process would continue to evolve.
Truth be told, there was room for improvement, and Waller knew it.
Most noticeable of all was the parallax effect caused by the fact that the Cinerama camera was really three cameras, each with its own vanishing point. Take this frame from the last scene of How the West Was Won, flying under the Golden Gate Bridge. This is taken from the DVD; the join lines have been digitally erased, and the “elbows” in the bridge (quite pronounced in the theater) have been rounded out — but the digital wizards couldn’t do anything about how the three lenses saw the bridge. Imagine yourself looking out at a vista: First you look straight ahead; then you take a step to your right and turn your head left; then two steps left and turn your head right. You’re looking at the same view each time, but from three ever-so-slightly different places. That’s how it was with the Cinerama camera. The parallax wasn’t always obvious — especially when you were careening up and down rollercoaster tracks or swooping over Niagara Falls or through Zion Canyon in Utah — but when it was, it was impossible to ignore.
As for the problem of slight variations in color, that was dependent on printing standards, which in most laboratories, as Hazard Reeves admitted, “have never been tight. If necessary,” he went on, “we’ll do our own printing.” But once again he ran up against the cheapskates at Stanley Warner. Not until 1958 did they agree to allot $200,000 for research into improved printing standards, and it wasn’t enough; Cinerama’s special in-house printers never materialized.
Let us now praise John Harvey.
Harvey’s interest in the movie projectionist’s craft began at an early age in Dayton. At the age of 10 he’d tag along when his older brother went to work at the local drive-in theater, and he began to wonder about the kind of machine it would take to project movies onto that massive outdoor screen. The projectionist noticed him peering in the windows night after night, invited him in to have a look around, and became his mentor, eventually sponsoring him into the projectionists’ union when John turned 17.
In the early 1980s a mutual friend invited Larry Smith to a screening at John’s home and introduced the two men. Smith remembered seeing Cinerama at the Dabel at the age of six, and his experience that night was a reunion with one of his most vivid childhood memories. He told Harvey that if there was any way he (Larry) could help bring this to a wider audience, he wanted to do it. In 1986, Smith became the manager of the New Neon Movies, a cozy little 300-seat art cinema nestled in one corner of a huge parking garage in downtown Dayton, and began a ten-year campaign to persuade Harvey to install his Cinerama equipment at the New Neon. (This picture, by the way, is a rather misleading likeness of Larry. It’s from a 1997 interview taken while Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was playing at the New Neon, and Larry had bleached his hair and grown the moustache and lip whiskers to emphasize his slight resemblance to Branagh as the Melancholy Dane.)
As 1995 became 1996, the landlord of the New Neon Movies announced plans to split the already-modest theater down the middle and turn it into a two-screen venue. Larry Smith at last persuaded John it was now or never, and they hatched a plan that was brilliant simplicity itself: Before the remodel, the New Neon would install John Harvey’s screen, projectors and sound equipment. The theater would continue showing its standard art-house fare every evening, but on weekends there would be full-Cinerama matinees of This Is Cinerama (on Saturdays) nd How the West Was Won (Sundays). The landlord was doubtful the scheme would pay for itself, but he agreed to let Smith solicit a letter-writing campaign; if he could get 1,000 writers to pledge to come to Dayton for Cinerama, then they could talk.
Eventually, the landlord followed through on his original plan, and the New Neon is now a two-screen cinema incapable of showing Cinerama. Larry Smith has moved on; he now lives in Culpeper, Virginia, where he works in the film preservation unit of the Library of Congress, speclializing in the salvage and preservation of nitrate film.
UPDATE 8/4/13: As always seems to happen, the photographs I took on my trip to Dayton in October 1996 turned up when I least expected to run across them. Here are a couple of good examples.
First, a shot of my uncle standing in front of the New Neon Movies as we arrived for the Sunday matinee showing of How the West Was Won. He’s holding one of my souvenir programs for the picture.
Just so there’s no confusion about the marquee over the box office: The New Neon ran This Is Cinerama on Saturdays and How the West Was Won on Sundays. The rest of the week, and Saturday and Sunday evening, was devoted to current art-house fare. The marquee shows that the (regular) feature is Big Night, the 1996 hit starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as brothers operating a failing Italian restaurant. Opening on the coming Friday will be Robert Altman’s jazz-flavored Kansas City.